The Patron Saints of Green Living

Benedictine sisters in Wisconsin employ cutting-edge sustainability practices

| July-August 2011

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    Marie Mainguy /

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New growth has a habit of springing to life at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Madison, Wisconsin—and that’s fine with the Benedictine sisters who reside there. “If Benedict were living, would he insist that everything be done just the way it was done in 480? Hardly,” laughs Sister Joanne Kollasch, who has seen plenty of change since she joined the community almost 60 years ago.

In 1998 Holy Wisdom became the first Catholic monastery in the country to become ecumenical, extending full membership to single women of all Christian traditions—not just Roman Catholics. And in 2010 the sisters’ new monastery became one of the greenest buildings in the nation, earning Platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council—an honor awarded to fewer than 5 percent of LEED-certified buildings.

From the “green” roofs to the 100 percent recyclable carpet, every nook and cloister of the building embodies the women’s commitment to “use what we need, but not more than that.” High-performance windows and solar tubes grace interior spaces with bright, natural light, while photovoltaic panels generate 15 percent of the building’s energy. Buried 300 feet beneath the parking lot—which is itself lit by solar-powered lights and paved with runoff-reducing cement—39 geothermal wells harness the earth’s natural temperatures to provide the monastery with efficient, year-round heating and cooling. And when the weather outside is pleasant, the central air-conditioning shuts off and residents automatically receive an email inviting them to open their windows.

The sisters made sure that the environment was considered throughout the process, not just in the end product. Instead of demolishing the old building and carting the mess to the dump, the sisters carefully deconstructed it so materials such as fiber-optic cables and organ pipes could be reused. “As we took the building down with care and reverence, it prepared us to put up a new building with the same care and reverence,” says Sister Joanne.

Like most Benedictine values, this spirit of reverence for all things can be traced back to the Rule of St. Benedict. Written in the sixth century, the rule outlines a pattern for monastic life emphasizing prayer, contemplation, stability, and balance. So when Benedict instructs that all things should be treated “as sacred vessels of the altar,” the sisters of Holy Wisdom took the advice seriously: Fully 99.75 percent of the old building was recycled or reused, diverting a whopping 8,628 tons of would-be waste from landfills.

Still more impressive was this: The project was completed under budget, coming in at $241 per square foot. That’s significantly less than the $366 per square foot cost averaged by other Platinum LEED-certified buildings. Sister Mary David Walgenbach, who entered the monastery in 1959, explains that the sisters were simply determined to build “a green monastery in a very red economy.”

Gale Green_2
8/19/2011 3:11:48 PM

Hmmm. . . a community of women, and you call them "Patron" saints? Shouldn't that be "Matron" saints? How masculinely oriented is our society, language. . . .

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